The emblem for Pennsylvania Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai, is on the wall at his offices as he announces at a news conference he will not run for another term as a Pennsylvania Representative, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in McCandless, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Emily is a reporter for WITF who’s been covering voting and elections since July 2019 as part of her former role with statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads. Previously, she covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.), was a watchdog and city hall reporter at The Press of Atlantic City and reported for the Northwest Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
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Democrats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are condemning the decision by Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) to let a special election proceed in a district that’s located in an area under state restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“Asking people being urged to stay home and use social distancing to ignore medical advice and go to crowded polls is irresponsible and dangerous, and an outrageous risk to our poll workers, many of whom are in the at-risk population for the virus’ most lethal effects,” Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) said in a statement posted Sunday, referencing the high fatality rate among older adults who contract the coronavirus.
As Speaker, only Turzai has the power to cancel the special election, Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren confirmed Sunday. In the case of special elections to fill vacant seats in the legislature, state election code gives the presiding officer in each chamber the power to schedule the date.
Gov. Tom Wolf says he’s considering delaying the April 28 primary, but won’t make the call until the date’s closer. Pennsylvania’s election code does not lay out special powers for the governor or legislature to postpone or reschedule elections. The governor’s emergency powers and obligation to protect public safety could give him sufficient authority, but the matter would almost certainly wind up in the courts unless GOP leaders in the legislature sign on.
But Wolf made clear on Friday and Saturday that he thinks the March 17 special election in Bucks County should be postponed.
The statement from House Democrats also cited Health Secretary Rachel Levine’s recommendation to delay the election.
Levine’s made the comments came during a conference call with legislators; the health department declined to comment Sunday.
There are three special elections for the state House happening Tuesday to fill open seats in districts 18 (parts of Butler and Mercer counties), 8 (Bensalem Township, Bucks County) and 58 (Westmoreland).
Polling locations could create problems for public health officials seeking to curtail the coronavirus outbreak. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a nationwide directive for nursing homes to restrict visitation Friday. At that point, restrictions already were in place at many facilities throughout Pennsylvania – even those outside the mitigation zone in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties.
Two 58th district polling places are located in apartment buildings in Monessen and Jeanette (Westmoreland County) that are occupied exclusively by senior citizens. Four others are in retirement homes in Monessen and one is located at the West Newtown Senior Center, according to the county’s precinct list.
After consultation whit the facilities’ personnel, election officials decided to continue voting at those sites as planned, according to Westmoreland’s Election Director Beth Lechman.
However, two polling locations within Yough Intermediate Middle School in Ruffsdale will be moved due to the statewide closure of schools, Lechman said Monday.
As of Friday afternoon, Mercer had moved one 8th House district polling place out of a nursing home to another location half a mile away that typically hosts a different precinct, according to county elections director Jeff Greenburg.
“It looked like … we were going to be able to use an isolated room in the building. So we were not going to be where we normally would be. We were going to be isolated away from the residents, and [facility operators] thought that they could still accommodate us,” Greenburg said. “But … after some further conversations, there were some more concerns. And I agree 100 percent.”
None of the Butler precincts involved in Tuesday’s election is in a nursing or retirement facility, said county elections director Shari Brewer.